Harborwalk's old look finds friends

The city's Harborwalk is getting a facelift with new decking, lighting and railing for the first time since its construction in the 1980s.

The city and businesses along the riverside boardwalk are hoping the restoration of the main downtown feature will attract tourists and help boost sales at the numerous restaurants and shops.

But there are some concerns over the material and the new look.

Environmentalists argue the popularity of importing ipe wood to the U.S. has led to deforestation in Brazil. City Council members counter that they plan to use only harvested wood.

There is also some concern about the impact on the historic look of the Harborwalk with a proposed switch from yellow-pine decking and rails to ipe decking and stainless steel cable railings.

The change will also require a buy-in from businesses along the Harborwalk in order to make sure all the railings match, including those attached to buildings that are not owned by the city.

The City Council approved the new design Tuesday and allocated about $600,000 in its 2010-2011 budget for the renovations. The plans are also expected to head to the Architectural Review Board for its recommendations.

Goat Island Grill Manager Stacey Majors had no clue the city was planning on restoring the Harborwalk, but she was glad to hear some work was being done.

"We get an awful lot of business from people walking on the Harborwalk," Majors said. "It looks rather weather-beaten and could stand to be improved."

She thought the city should continue to use the same kind of wood already there, though.

The council voted to use ipe, a durable hardwood, over yellow pine because ipe lasts about 20 years, while the yellow pine needs to be replaced more often.

"Engineers did cost analysis," said Mayor Jack Scoville. " In the long term, ipe is cheaper and we don't have to replace it as often. I talked to Atlantic City, N.J., and they've used ipe since the 1980s. The design would look a lot better than the other one. People will come into compliance. We are not going to make them do it."

The deck boards and handrails are exhibiting typical signs of age such as checking, splitting and splintering, according to a survey done in March by Collins Engineers, Inc.

"We need it to be upgraded," said Sally Swineford, co-owner of The River Room. "There are a lot of boards that need to be replaced for safety reasons. Also, that is what the hospitality tax is meant for."

The $600,000 to restore the Harborwalk will come from the city's hospitality tax fund, which has a balance of about $1 million.

"I think the Harborwalk is great for Georgetown," said Rhodes Miller, owner of Goudelock & Co. Home and Garden. "I do think what we have right now looks outdated."

Miller's business has dual entrances, with one on the Harborwalk.

"We do own our own building," she said. "Aesthetically, it would be better if [the railings] all looked the same. We could not afford to do that right now."

Because the city is buying the material in bulk, it will sell the material to the businesses with the goal of cutting the cost.

The stainless steel railing with also bring the city up to code. The new railing would have stainless steel cords strung every few inches, allowing visibility while providing a barrier.

Miller said she was aware of controversy surrounding the use of ipe but said she was not well-versed on the issue.

"It is important to me that they use wood that is harvested and they are not stripping the rainforest," she said.

Nancy Cave, director of the local branch of the Coastal Conservation League, spoke out against the use of ipe. She said there was no way for the city to know for sure that the wood it's purchasing was harvested.

"Eighty percent of ipe harvesting is done illegally," she said.

Councilwoman Jeanette Ard also has a business on the Harborwalk. She was against the new design. She said the new design did not fall within the permitting previously approved by the state's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.

"If we are going to change it, we have to get this approved by OCRM," Ard said. "We have not been permitted for that new design. We have been permitted for maintenance and repair. "

Under the permit, the project must be completed by April 2011. The work will be done in 100-foot intervals so as not to disrupt businesses on the Harborwalk, said City Administrator Chris Eldridge.

Ard also objected to the cost of the new design, saying other projects could be funded with the hospitality tax if the city went with less expensive wood.

"At Rainey Park, the fountain is ready to fall into river. In the walkway, the bricks are separating. People have gotten the impression the money must be spent on Harborwalk," she said. "I oppose overspending on one project instead of funding other projects. We are acting like it's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But it is taxpayer money."

Councilwoman Peggy Wayne also opposed the new design.

"Back in the '80s we went through meeting after meeting after meeting with the merchants," she said. "We agreed it would be built a particular way and that anyone that connected to it would have the same wood. Why do we want to spend this much money for changing the whole thing?"